Deficit worries slow funding of Obama homeless programs

Lawmakers are skittish about funding new programs to meet President Obama’s ambitious goal of ending homelessness for families, children and veterans in the next decade.

The number of homeless families is rising because of high unemployment and the foreclosure crisis, but lawmakers say helping the new homeless is complicated by concerns over the deficit.

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The nation’s $1.2 trillion budget deficit is a “major obstacle” to funding the National Housing Trust Fund, according to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and a longtime advocate for low-income housing.

The trust fund was created in 2008 to fund the construction of affordable rental homes for low-income people. Those homes are critical now that the number of homeless families has grown by an estimated 30 percent since 2007, according to government data.

“If it wasn’t for the deficit concern it would have been over already,” Frank said of the legislation funding the trust fund.

“It’s important to have a decent low-income housing program to … act as an alternative for putting low-income people into homeownership, which they can’t afford. But obviously, the concern about the deficit is a major obstacle,” Frank said.

The House approved legislation last month that bankrolls the National Housing Trust Fund’s $1.065 billion cost, but the Senate has yet to take up the funding.

The holdup in the Senate has delayed the construction of over 10,000 rental homes that are needed to begin chipping away at an estimated shortfall of 3 million low-income units, according to Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) blamed the deficit for the struggle to fund programs aimed at reducing homelessness, but said other factors are also playing a role.

Lawmakers face a tight legislative calendar, and there is a lack of data on how much funding will be needed to implement all of the president’s recommendations, said Waters, the chairwoman of the Financial Services subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s unlikely that the plan can move through Congress anytime soon,” Waters said.

Homelessness became a top national concern in the 1980s in the aftermath of a deep recession. Aside from the downturn, much of the rise in the number of chronic homeless in the 1980s was caused by deinstitutionalization — the release from state mental hospitals of thousands of patients, many of whom ended up living on the streets.

A wave of efforts to fight homelessness, including the “Comic Relief” telethons hosted by actor-comedians Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg, brought new attention to the problem and raised millions of dollars for shelters.

Advocates for the homeless say cuts to federal programs exacerbated the problem.

“The recession in the early 1980s, coupled with the dramatic cuts to federal safety net programs in the early days of the Reagan administration, created the contemporary homeless situation,” said Crowley. “We’ve never got over that. We’ve never created the investment needed to recover from that.”

It’s unclear to what degree today’s recession and housing crisis is exacerbating homelessness.

Studies show the number of chronic homeless dropped from 2007 to 2009, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has reported that the number of homeless families has increased by 30 percent over the past two years, to 170,000.

Government and nonprofit analysts who study the homeless say the numbers have always been difficult to calculate; estimates on the total number of homeless in the U.S. range from 670,0000 to 4 million.

The Obama administration’s “Opening Doors” plan, released last month, aims to end homelessness among veterans within five years and among families and children within a decade. It includes a broad number of recommendations for working toward its goals.

In a shift from the efforts of the 1980s and ’90s that funded shelter and transitional programs, the Opening Doors proposal emphasizes permanent housing solutions. It advocates programs that increase the supply of affordable rental homes, such as the trust fund and the creation of more housing vouchers.

HUD Secretary Shaun DonovanShaun DonovanHouse Dems call on OMB to analyze Senate budget plan Overnight Finance: Dems turn up heat on Wells Fargo | New rules for prepaid cards | Justices dig into insider trading law GOP reps warn Obama against quickly finalizing tax rules MORE — one of the main architects of the Opening Doors plan — has also called for funding in the fiscal 2011 federal budget to create a new program called Transforming Rental Assistance (TRA), which would streamline HUD’s 13 different rental assistance programs into one system that will be able to attract capital from private and public sources.

Donovan says the program will infuse the public housing system with the capital it needs to preserve and rehabilitate affordable units in the country’s Public Housing program, which faces a backlog of unmet capital needs estimated between $20 billion and $30 billion and has lost 150,000 units of affordable housing in the past 15 years.

But the new program is meeting with opposition from lawmakers.

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The House Appropriations Transportation, Housing and Urban Development subcommittee did not fund this $350 million project in its fiscal 2011 appropriation bill.

The subpanel’s chairman, Rep. John Olver (D-Mass.), said it wouldn’t have been right to include the money in the bill without more of a debate.

“The TRA was not funded by the committee because it is a major overhaul of the affordable housing system. An overhaul of this magnitude needs to be debated through the full authorization process. Inserting it into the appropriations bill was just not appropriate,” Olver said.